The bodies of the executed hang limp as the spectators begin to leave.
“Please don’t let me fall.” So went the last words spoken by Mary Surratt. It was a desperate plea before she did indeed fall – to her death, at the end of a hangman’s noose. The demise of Surratt – and three of the other convicted conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln – marked the end of a trial and execution that remains controversial to this day, almost 150 years later.
Crowd gathering for the execution, as seen from the roof of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where it took place
Following the shooting of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, a massive manhunt was launched to find the killer and his fellow conspirators. The group had also attempted, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward was badly wounded with a knife by Lewis Powell, while the assassination of Johnson was aborted as George Atzerodt fled to Washington. Booth was discovered and shot dead at a farmhouse in northern Virginia, thus escaping the trial and execution faced by his captured accomplices.
The condemned conspirators on the scaffold with officers, while guards lined up along the wall.
It was stiflingly hot on July 7, 1865, the day the four prisoners were led out to the gallows. Earlier that morning, the condemned – Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell (or Payne), David Herold and George Atzerodt – had listened anxiously to the sounds of the gallows being tested. The noise of the traps swinging open below the nooses must have driven home that these were the final hours of their lives.
General John F. Hartranft reads the death warrant to the condemned awaiting their fate on the scaffold.
The order for the executions had come only a day before, on July 6, with the news delivered to the prisoners in sealed envelopes. We can only imagine the alarm that the four convicted conspirators must have felt upon finding out that not only were they to be executed, but that, more shockingly, it was to happen scarcely 24 hours later. Right until her death, many still hoped that Surratt, at least, would have her sentence reduced, and efforts by her daughter and others to secure clemency continued up until the last moment. Five of the nine judges involved even recommended as much to new president Andrew Johnson, but the order was never signed.
The ropes of the nooses are adjusted.
Charged with aiding and abetting as well as concealing, harboring and counseling the other defendants, Surratt would eventually be found guilty of treason, conspiracy and plotting the murder of Lincoln. The others were all also convicted for their parts in the conspiracy – Powell for his botched attempt at murdering Secretary of State Seward, Herold for assisting Powell and helping Booth escape (although Booth himself claimed Herold was innocent), and Atzerodt for planning to assassinate the Vice President.
Lawyers for Surratt pleaded that she was innocent and had not been connected to the plot in any way – a defense that many still believe today. Powell’s counsel, meanwhile, claimed that he was driven by near insanity; Herold’s put forward that he was weak-minded and trifling; and Atzerodt’s argued that he was too much of a coward to have played a major part in the conspiracy. All these arguments were rejected, however, and the accused were found guilty and sentenced to execution.
Guards look on prior to the bodies being cut down.
At precisely 1.02pm on July 7, Surratt, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt were led into the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where they were being detained, and shuffled past the pine coffins and freshly dug graves that awaited them. It’s difficult to know what would have inspired more fear in the four convicted conspirators – the newly built boxes or the recently tested gallows.
The pine coffins and open graves await the bodies of the condemned.
The procession of the condemned was led by Surratt, who was to have the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Weak from weeping and the severe stomach cramps she had been suffering – and doubtless crippled by fear – Surratt needed the support of soldiers and priests to make it across the courtyard.
Powell, who had attempted suicide during the trial, needed no such help. Although he, like the other two men, wore manacles, he moved along confidentially, “like a king about to be crowned,” as one journalist described him. The remaining two prisoners, Herold and Atzerodt, did not seem quite so enthusiastic about their impending deaths and shambled along anxiously.
Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the US federal government
The expressions on the faces of the assembled crowd that day would likely have ranged from satisfaction and somber determination to morbid curiosity, detached interest and even grief. Over a thousand people witnessed proceedings in the courtyard that day, including government officials, soldiers, reporters, witnesses, and friends and family of the condemned.
Among the crowd were less than 200 eager onlookers who had managed to secure passes to the execution. The hanging of the conspirators in the President’s assassination was a major event, and the demand for these tickets far outnumbered what was available.
Lewis Payne, born as Lewis Powell. The jaw on the left side of his face was disfigured by a donkey's kick when he was a child.
There would likely have been the scent of wood in the air from the hastily built scaffold as the four doomed prisoners climbed the steps to the waiting nooses. At the top they were given chairs to sit in, and their arms were bound to their bodies and legs tied together with cloth, Surratt’s bindings over her dress. The condemned woman must have made a grim figure, dressed as if for a funeral (which in a sense she was), entirely in black – dress, bonnet and veil.
Once they had been tied up securely and given time to speak with clergymen, the condemned were made to stand again while the nooses were looped around their necks. The final touches were the white hoods that were placed over their heads. From the scaffold, Powell spoke up for Surratt, proclaiming her innocence and adding, “She doesn't deserve to die with the rest of us." However, nothing could be done to stop the execution by now.
David E. Herold. In his defense it was claimed he had the mind of an 11-year-old.
It is said that, as he adjusted the noose around Powell’s neck, the hangman whispered in the prisoner’s ear, “I want you to die quick” (which is probably about the best you can wish someone who is about to be hanged). “You know best,” replied Powell. Yet a quick death was not to be his fate.
Surratt complained about the tightness of the bindings around her wrist, to which she was rather cruelly – if accurately – answered, “Well, it won’t hurt long.” The four prisoners were maneuvered onto the traps that would open beneath them, and it was then that Surratt made her wretched entreaty that she not be allowed to fall.
George Atzerodt, one of whose acquaintances would describe him at the trial as a "notorious coward"
The condemned prisoners stood there for a few moments, under the blazing sun, and the hundreds of spectators must have held their breath. Then, at 1.26 pm, the executioner clapped his hands – the signal for the soldiers to knock down the drop supports. Atzerodt called out, “May we all meet in the other world. God take me now," just before he and his co-conspirators fell several feet, before being jerked up by the rope.
Mary Surratt appeared to die the quickest, her body going rigid at the end of the rope and swinging to and fro. David Herold also shuddered briefly before his body went still. George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, however, continued to move about wildly as they were slowly strangled by the ropes, struggling for several minutes or more. Powell may have even taken more than five minutes to die, and twice he was said to have drawn his legs up before finally succumbing to death.
President Abraham Lincoln, who was shot on April 14, 1865 and died the following morning
The bodies were checked by a doctor to ensure that they were dead, and about half an hour after the hanging were cut down. They were buried in their nearby shallow graves, with the hoods still in place. However, later modifications to the prison meant that the bodies were to be dug up from where they lay.
Surratt’s body was returned to her family and buried in Mount Olive Cemetery in Washington D.C. Herold’s family interred his remains at Congressional Cemetery, also in Washington D.C., while Atzerodt was buried at St. Paul’s Lutheran Cemetery in Baltimore. Mysteriously, in 1992 Powell’s skull turned up at the Smithsonian Anthropology Department. It has since been re-buried at the Geneva Cemetery in Florida, next to his mother.
The Presidential Box at Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated
To this day, there are those who believe the trial and subsequent executions were unfair. These observers point to the questionable levels of proof, the shortage of time the defense were given to prepare, and the withholding of possible evidence, amongst other issues. Critics are particularly vocal about the hanging of Mary Surratt, who they believe could not be adequately tied to the conspiracy.
John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, up until then known as a famous stage actor
As with any major event of this nature, there are of course several outlandish conspiracy theories, including those that implicate the Pope and Vice President Andrew Johnson. However, so far none of these has been taken particularly seriously.
The exterior of Ford's Theater, draped with black crepe
Perhaps we will never completely know the true story behind the assassination and the exact roles of a devout Catholic widow (Surratt), a carriage repairman (Atzerodt), an assistant to an “Indian Herb” doctor (Herold), and a man who – despite the violent crime he almost certainly committed – in his youth was known for his kindness to animals (Powell). We do, however, have a record of their deaths in the photographs of Alexander Gardner, the only photographer who was permitted to attend the execution.